Category Archives: IMMIGRATION

CROSS THE STREET

They were going to kill him just because he crossed the street. He didn’t want to cross the street. But the car they wanted him to fix was on that side of the street. It was broken down and they couldn’t move it. And he is a mechanic. So he crossed the street. But that side of the street was the rival gang’s side. Within minutes, he was spotted, and surrounded, and they already started roughing him up, and they had his shoes, shirts, and pants off and he was just in his underwear.

I didn’t know that this was happening. I was washing clothes on my old washboard on our little backyard, but I was filled with dread suddenly. Like someone punched me in the gut. I just dropped the shirt I was washing back into the concrete sink, and I fell to my knees and prayed. God, I said. I don’t know what is happening, but please watch over, please keep my loved ones safe, please help me, God! I prayed on and on.

My son came back while I was still praying and he came flying around the mango tree in his boxer shorts and no shoes and no clothes and a look of terror on his face! He told me what had happened, and we sat on the little bench and we were both shaking and trembling. He said right when someone knocked him down and he was waiting for the death blow, he heard the voice on his friend calling out for them to stop!

It turns out that this sweet girl that he has known since they were babies, a neighbor kid who had played under our very mango tree, in the very backyard where I was praying, had walked by and seen what they were doing. One of the guys in that gang, I am sad to say, but also happy in this case, is her cousin. She called out, “Stop what you are doing! You don’t even look at who it is before you start harming someone! This is my friend!” He lives in thus and such a place and he knows thus and such people, she explained to her cousin.

Then she turned aside to my son and whispered, “Run for your life!” He turned and fled without clothes or tools and without looking back and he himself cannot say what happened behind him because like Lot’s wife in the bible he didn’t look back. Oh! Actually, she did look back, and that was the end of her. But my son didn’t look back, and he was saved. Haha! I am so nervous just talking about this that I am mixing up my bible stories!

So I told him I could feel that something was happening and I had asked God to intervene but now we needed to remember that God helps those who help themselves and he needed to get out of the country right away. I cannot tell you how he ended up in Europe because I don’t really understand the highways and byways of all of that travelling. He left with a bus ticket and then he was in God’s hands and ended up way over there. That’s all I know.

And now we have a new challenge to face that is testing our faith because he just lost his political asylum appeal in Europe and they are going to deport him back home and if he goes anywhere near our old place and anyone recognizes him, they will kill him. He thought Europe would be more forgiving than the United States, but they are worse, and they especially don’t like to receive young men, I found out. People come up to him and tell him he should go home and fight, and protect his family. But how do you protect your family against the gangs?

I have to believe that God has a plan, and I try so hard to believe it. But it is hard for me right now and I catch myself doubting. And I have to admit, sincerely, that I do wish God could reveal the plan to me so I could be at peace. I wish I could understand why all this is happening, so it would make sense to me. May God forgive me for my lack of humility and trust. He has shown me more than I ever wanted to see, and I am only a weak human. So why do I ask to see more? Who am I? A speck of dust! And I know I have to be grateful that most of my loved ones are still alive. I have to trust Him! I have to. May God have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

NEVER MET

A proud man from a small country was telling me how people he had never met were quite dangerous types. I work with refugees? So what! He knew all about them. I shouldn’t be fooled! He had seen them on the television. Hordes of them were flooding over the border, and two of them had been interviewed. He had seen them on the news. And he was very upset about it, and very adamant. He wanted to warn me against them.

“They didn’t come through the usual channels, so our country was not prepared to receive them. There were several thousand, and they just walked over the border liked they owned the place. We didn’t have a sit-down meal prepared, of course, and all we could find on short notice was oatmeal. So we made a lot of oatmeal, and distributed it, so everyone could fill their bellies.

“One man who was interviewed, he was angry about getting oatmeal. He was disdainful. He said that oatmeal was what they feed their animals – and their women at home! Ha! Yes, he said that. Why should he come here?”

“The other man, you know the type, young, nervous, suspicious sores on face, I am an old musician, I can recognize a total tweaker, clearly a drug addict, saying he demands to get money from our government. He wants handouts, not work! He wants our money! To use drugs! Tell me, why should I work for him? Why should I work for any of them?”

“Nobody wants to talk about it, because it’s not politically correct, but why are 90% of these refugees young men? Why did they leave their parents and grandparents, their young wives and small children, to suffer on alone in their home country, if things are so bad? You defend your family with your life’s blood. You stand and fight like a man! These refugees are not real men. No, I’ve never met them – I don’t need to – I saw them.”

As someone who lives and works in a global community, and has the benefit of meeting and interacting intimately with people from around the world, especially from war zones, I am always astounded by the strongly held opinions of people who have never met a refugee. Never spoken with a recent immigrant. Have no friends who speak another language or were born in another country. Have never lived abroad or faced the loneliness of being the outsider. Who don’t know more than the mass media chooses to show, yet feel such an intense certainty and even indignation about who these people are and how they will surely ruin the host countries.

These archetypes of the disdainful newcomer, the dangerous newcomer, the lazy beggars and the criminal types, live on in the psyches of people around the world. In part, because communities in general are not excited about taking on new burdens with people they have never met. In part, because their governments are not very good about listening to the voice of the people in the actual communities who are supposed to take in the swelling masses of newcomers. And in large part, because the hosts have never met the guests. So the media gets to tell their story.

Ten years from now, some of these same uninvited guests of reluctant hosts will be living happily in various communities around the world, having picked up the language, made friends, found work, and sent their children to school. Some of them will have found a way to go back home. Some will be dead. Some will be lonely. Some really will use drugs or break the law, and they will serve to reinforce the stereotypes that bleed out onto all their population.

For those fortunate ones who truly find a new home in the host country, the people who have met them will change their preconceived notions. These strangers who meet will get to know each other over time, trust each other, become friends and even family. Their shared humanity will weave them together into community, as has happened since our earliest ancestors walked on two legs to their neighbors and beyond. And those who never meet these wanderers will continue to hold on to their comfortable ideas about who these newcomers are, based on news stories such as the one this particular man chose to remember in his own way.

U VISA

When I first heard from the prosecutors that people were filing false reports of crimes in the hopes of getting the benefits of a U visa, I was skeptical.  How would they even know about it?  Would they really risk pretending to be a crime victim to hope for immigration benefits?  What if they get caught, won’t they then have a criminal record and be worse off for false reporting conviction, which is a crime of moral turpitude (on ICE’s naughty list)?

Then I met several people, and an increasing number, who know about, talk about and ask about the U visa.  So what is it?  In short, it is a special immigration program allowing up to 10,000 victims of serious crimes to stay in the US and obtain permanent residence in exchange for cooperating with law enforcement to solve the crimes.  And yes, folks, some of the crimes are real.  And some are set up.

Let’s say you are a young buck whose uncles brought you here to work and they now feel sorry for you.  You are in constant fear of deportation and cannot get ahead.  Wouldn’t it be great if you were documented, and could study and get a good job?  One of the uncles is sick and tired of the life here anyway and plans to go to his home country and never come back.  So he agrees to “beat up” the nephew, who is now a victim of serious assault.  No broken bones, but a black eye and lots of bruises.

True story?  Interpreters never know for sure.  But I have certainly heard several variations of this U visa tale.  Do I judge those who hear about the U visa and figure hey worth a try?  No.  Because if I had to flee my country with my kids, and they faced a risk of death or torture if they were deported, I would smack the hell out of them if it saved them from worse.  No question.  I would happily eat prison food followed by deportation if it saved them.  It would make perfect sense and I would consider it a moral imperative.

But what a sad world we live in where families get to a point of beating up their loved ones in the hopes of helping them.  It is just sad all the way around.

WHOSE SANCTUARY?

Upon taking office, Trump signed an executive order finding that “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States.  These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

This week, on November 15, 2017, the Department of Justice announced that sanctuary jurisdictions will lose access to certain federal law enforcement grants if they take actions the federal government has classified as “giving sanctuary”.  The money to be withheld includes funds for crime prevention specialists to advise on matters like gang violence and mass identity theft.

The lawyers I have talked with explain that our local county jail does not prohibit ICE agents from interviewing inmates.  The jail does not stop ICE from looking through records, or otherwise impede their work.  Yet our jail is considered a “Sanctuary” because it does  not physically detain inmates once they have finished serving their sentences and are free to go – unless and until there is a showing of “probable cause” to detain, from ICE or any other jurisdiction.

“Probable Cause” comes from the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

If ICE provides paperwork documenting their “probable cause” for having the local government hold a prisoner who is free to go, the county jail can do that.  And it would be legal.  The jail regularly ships people off to other cities, states, and even the feds for criminal cases.  But this is all highly technical.   Let me put it into the words of an old jail guard.  You may not agree with everything that guard has to say, but this is not an open borders proponent or an anarchist, just a simple government servant:

“You might just see me as an old veteran with a badge and a gun, and that’s okay.  I can take it.  But believe it or not, I fought for democracy and I am here to uphold the US constitution.  If ICE is too lazy to do their paperwork right, that’s their problem.  I’m not here to protect anybody breaking the law, and that includes ICE, my fellow officers, the judges, whoever!  The laws aren’t just for inmates!  And I’m not some kind of open borders baby either.  It’s not about that at all.  I’ll tell you who gets sanctuary with me – the United States Constitution!  That’s who gets sanctuary.  The rest is just bullshit.”

HIGHER PRIORITY

Almost the day Trump took office he passed an Executive Order making a huge swath of immigrants higher priority for deportation.  The list includes criminal convicts.  But it also includes anyone simply charged with a crime, and then adds anyone who has done something that could be a crime, even if never charged or arrested.  Add to that anyone who has misrepresented anything to a government agency (think using a fake social security number to get a job).  Throw in anyone who has a removal order, and anyone who took an extra piece of the welfare pie such as adding one more kid to the food stamp pot.  All are now top priorities for deportation.

To round it out,  Trump’s higher priority list includes anyone whom any immigration officer considers to be risky.  So we have a law that purports to prioritize who should be deported that is ridiculously broad and vague.  At the same time, it allows ICE officers a shocking amount of discretion in choosing who gets deported.  And this makes the law so random in its enforcement, that one would be hard pressed to find that it serves due process.  And it is even harder to imagine that it adds one iota to national security.

What follows is the pertinent section of the actual Order:

Sec. 5.  Enforcement Priorities.  In executing faithfully the immigration laws of the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary) shall prioritize for removal those aliens described by the Congress in sections 212(a)(2), (a)(3), and (a)(6)(C), 235, and 237(a)(2) and (4) of the INA (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(2), (a)(3), and (a)(6)(C), 1225, and 1227(a)(2) and (4)), as well as removable aliens who:

(a)  Have been convicted of any criminal offense;

(b)  Have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved;

(c)  Have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense;

(d)  Have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency;

(e)  Have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits;

(f)  Are subject to a final order of removal, but who have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States; or

(g)  In the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.

That is a whole lot of discretion and judgment on the part of immigration officers across the country.  Wouldn’t it be better to have a clearly written and strongly delineated policy so we could have the rule of law and due process apply to immigration enforcement?

REFUGE OR PURGATORY?

As my dear friend Lisa and I reminisce about getting lost this week, I am filled once again with deep compassion for what it must feel like to be a newcomer in a new land without the tools and the resources to negotiate an unfamiliar place.  In Florence Italy, two days after our arrival, Lisa and I optimistically decided that we knew how to get back to our tiny rented apartment after our morning wandering in a new section of town.  We were sadly mistaken.

Freshly arrived in a new place, our world was reduced to a tiny speck of what we knew within a vast sea of the unknown.  We knew our address, which is more than some of the people I interpret for do.  After two days of exploring, we knew where the grocery store was.  We knew how to walk back and forth to the Old City, the train station, and a couple other major landmarks.  We knew which bus number would take us into town.  So on a scorching afternoon after a long day wandering, we decided to take the bus home from town.  We had ridden it in once, and remembered where it had dropped us off.

It would be faster than walking the whole way, we reasoned, and our experience with buses is you cross the street from where you took it in order to catch the bus back.  But our bus number was not listed on the sign across the street.  We pondered that as we sweated and noticed how weary we were.  It must be around the corner, I reasoned, and so we walked a few blocks along where it should run.  No bus.  After a few more blocks in the heat of the afternoon, we decided to just walk home.  But by now we had somehow wandered off our bus route.  It seemed a long way to backtrack just to use the streets we knew.  So we forged on.  We kind of knew where we were in relation to our apartment.  But then again, we kind of didn’t.

We didn’t yet fathom a few vital points of information.  We didn’t know what we didn’t know.  For example, we didn’t understand how the buses run, how the streets work, the language, or even how to handle the heat.  We didn’t know where to buy water, or that stores would be closed from noonish until three or four in the afternoon outside of the tourist core.   And a lot of stores are closed this whole month for vacation.  We also didn’t know that our road is a short unknown one and that we were in fact getting less and less likely to find someone who had heard of it as we wandered further afield.  We didn’t even know that we were wandering away.

Our bus does not have a back and forth route.  It circles around and you always catch it on the same side of the street.  This makes sense to us in retrospect, because as we tried to find our way home along what to our unknowing feet seemed like straight streets, we were wandering in circles.  Streets we thought were parallel suddenly crossed each other before our eyes.  Streets we thought were north-south were arc-shaped and curly-cued to the four winds.  There were roundabouts but not in any particular pattern we could discern.  Some roads made pizza-sliced shapes and others just abruptly changed names from one to yet another male hero or saint.

We found the railroad tracks some way north of where we had started and were relieved to cross them.  Now we must surely be heading west toward our place, thank Madonna.  (The Mother of God, not the singer).  But as newcomers we did not know that north of the train station there is a major line that veers off to the east.  So when we crossed, we were simply continuing northward and further from our home.  Without knowing this, we felt sure that if we walked long enough, we would be bound to run into something familiar.

But nothing was familiar, and after a couple hours, my inner refugee was in a panic.  I was hot and tired. I felt nauseous.  I was seriously dehydrated and our water was long gone.  I had discovered to my ignorant surprise that all Italians do not understand Spanish, or speak several languages, or have any common language with me.  First shyly reluctant, then emboldened by desperation, I started accosting virtually everyone who crossed our path, and found out how to understand in Italian things like “I really don’t know, but I swear if I did, I would tell you!” and “Madonna, but you are far from home!  I have never even heard of that street.  Are you sure it’s a street?” and “It is nowhere around here so wherever it is you will have to take a bus.”  My favorite, “In Florence?  Are you sure it is in Florence?”  I was sure of nothing by now.

We started and stopped in our growing panic.  We had to do something besides continuing to wander aimlessly.  Should we just follow a street and if we get to another town, turn around?  How far apart are the towns anyway?  Should we hail a taxi?  We didn’t see a single one drive by and we had no number to call and didn’t really understand how to use our phones or even the calling code for Italy or whether we would need it using our foreign phones.   Why didn’t we have any of this figured out?  Why had we left our maps at home?  What the hell were we thinking?  I sat in the shade of a dirty little park – the first place in Italy where we saw any litter – and tried to get my roaming on so I could try to download and use google maps on my phone.

I clicked and squinted and watched the phone as if it might do something I didn’t know how to tell it to do, screen after screen, until despair and resignation set in.  My phone and my brain were both overheated and technology has never been my friend.  I felt beyond incompetent and helpless as I sat on that dirty curb in the heat, surrounded by the only litter in the country, incomprehensible graffiti on every wall and all the stores closed and shuttered for the afternoon heat wave if not for the month.  How could God let this happen?  We were never going to find our little apartment.  Not before I passed out or just fell to the ground and cracked my head open like a melon, fertilizing the street with my blood as many a street-named male hero was purported to have done through the long ages.

It really hit me then.  This wasn’t just a vacation story in the making.  This was the beginning of a freak death story for the local papers.  I was going to die on the street of heat exhaustion and dehydration and my friend’s cheery concern only made my impending ignominious street death scene the more painful.  Her unflagging optimism was salt in my wounds.

“Well, soon we will be home and then we can relax.”

I had to grit my teeth not to snap aloud at her unwarranted encouragement.  As time went on, it only got worse.  I began to have a series of snide verbalities walking silently alongside me as she encouraged onward.  “Sure, she lives in the desert.  This heat is nothing to her. I come from the rain forest.  I’ll be the one to die first.”

Her cheery commentary and looks of concern, along with her clear ability to outlast me and eventually get my body to the morgue, probably making friends with the mortician, became unbearable as the hours slipped away.  Finally, I snapped.

“You need to accept the fact that we may not make it home, Lisa.  People do die of heat exhaustion, you know.  We have been out here for hours with no water, no map, no way to get home.  Okay it’s the birthplace of the Renaissance, but there are no taxis in this hellhole.  Taking a bus is pointless because we would just get on and then get off in a random location.  So please don’t mention home again!  I want to be cremated.  See if you can get a discount as the process feels like it has already started.”

At that moment a bus stopped across the street, not our number, but my friend darted valiantly through traffic to ask the driver for help.  As it turns out, he didn’t speak a word of English.  And why should he?  Our being lost was certainly not his concern.  He had a bus to drive.  And as Lisa had actually stepped onto the bus, he simply drove off with her in it.  I saw her through the bus window pointing vigorously toward me and talking with eager rapidity.  The bus driver glanced at me for a moment but did not stop the bus.  I stood like a statue staring from across the street as the bus drove a long straight (for Florence) stretch of road and eventually disappeared around a distant corner with Lisa aboard.

My mother taught me as a child that if you get lost, you stay put and eventually someone will find you.  I felt very much like a lost child as I stood on that corner, seemingly abandoned by the Madonna, laughed at by all the saints in heaven, somehow deserving this fate or it wouldn’t be happening, and perilously, unutterably alone in the world.  I stood there on aching feet, the sun broiling me alive, staring toward the point where my friend had disappeared.  I had time to contemplate many things, including whether nervous sweat smells better when enhanced with the seafood and garlic emanations from yesterday’s supper.  The jury is out on that one.

More importantly, of course, I contemplated how very, very lonely and scary it is to be a newcomer in a new place and know no one.  And amidst all my self-concern, my heart went out once again to all the brave and scared travelers who are not choosing a vacation but are wrenched from their homes due to global conditions.

Laugh if you will at lonely scared sweating me, a pathetic excuse for a human being, a single, individual, scared rabbit of a person, on a chosen vacation with a dear and trusted friend, and laugh if you will at the deep instinctual fear I experienced.  But also please try to extrapolate to the millions and millions and millions of refugees who die in the desert or drown at sea or are killed trying to cross the border into countries they would never even wish to live in, if their home countries could provide them with decent living conditions to raise their families and live out their lives in peace.  It is impossible to really fathom how many people, each one living their subjective reality within their own bit of flesh as we all do, are forced to emigrate due to the harsh conditions of global politics and the global economy.

Much later, doing an impressive slow trot like a trustworthy desert camel, my friend reappeared from around the corner. Still smiling.  We would have clung to each other when she reached me, but the heat made that impossible.  Our peregrination did come to an end or you would not be reading this.  But that is not how it felt at the time.

We trekked on from there until we found two open stores.  Neither selling water or anything to drink.  I didn’t even ask to use their WC, thinking I may need to drink my urine later.  One had a Pakistani worker who spoke some English and said she had never heard of that street or any of the other major streets I could name.  She directed us next door to a Persian shopkeeper with a little internet by the hour cafe.  He sat on a stool in a little cage in the back like a bank teller in a Western movie.

I tried English on him and he just shook his head.  I tried Spanish and and he also shook his head.  Not knowing Farsi I tried to make up Italian using a Spanish base and adding in some hand gestures.  I stretched out my vowels like a luxurious cat, while hardening my d’s and relishing anything with a c, sc, ch, or cch in it. I told him in my Spitalian that we were lost.  He shook his head.  I said we were abandoned.  Same thing.  He was looking more awkward by the minute but I refused to leave.  I couldn’t take another step without help.

I unrolled my vocabulary, growing more plaintive by the minute, trying not to cry as my hands made butterflies then mosquitoes in the hot air.  “We are off our way, misdirected, missing, godforsaken.  We don’t know – our street.  Where, where our street?  Here we are, me must go – there!  Felice Fontana!  Felice Fontana!  Close to Neri.  In the West!  I think the West quadrangle rectangular square plaza of the municip-commun-city.  We are what is the word?  What is the word?!  We don’t know!  We don’t know!!  We need assist – succour – help!”

By now I was raising my voice, going up and down scales, tasting each bitter syllable before spitting out my Spitalian through the bars of his cage into his face.  Small wonder he started leaning further and further back on his stool until he had to hold onto the counter with one hand so he didn’t fall over backwards.  He kept both eyes on me while shaking his head distrustfully without uttering a sound in any language, looking more and more like a Persian-Italian deer in the headlights. I think he must have been moments away from hitting the panic button under his counter and having the Polizia resolve this.  Or pulling out a weapon as a last resort to make me leave.

Finally a young Spaniard in the cafe, who probably doubted that I even spoke Spanish until I happened to blurt out a whole sentence free of my made-up Italian, stood up and told me in Spanish that he could help me.  He did not know where any of the streets were, but he said he could interpret Spanish to Italian for me to an older Italian man acquaintance of his in the cafe, the only local around.  I gratefully accepted.

Via my new interpreter, I said our street name, but my new Italian friend didn’t know it.  I said Francesco Redi, the nearest larger street.  The old Italian shook his head and told the young Spaniard with a look of utter yet friendly disdain, “Redi – Redi.  No!  No no no no no!  No!  What street does the signora really want?  Maybe Neri?  It is in the tourist area.  Neri.  She must want Neri.  Neri sounds like Redi.  She is mixed up.  No?  Sure?  Well then.  But no, not Redi.  I think not.  Maybe the train station Rifredi?  Rifredi is close.  Tell her she must want Neri or Rifredi!  Not Redi!  They can’t be near Redi.  That is too far.  They can’t walk home from here.  No!  No no no no no!”  Peering into my red and sweaty face with curiosity, but carefully directing all his speech to the Spaniard.

This went on until I had repeated the name several times, really relishing the name as if he were my beloved and not just a familiar street on the way to our apartment, “Francesco Redi.  Francesco Redi!” The longing in my voice was real.  The intonation somewhat contrived, borrowing from Mamma Mia.  I used a variety of hand gestures combining belly dancing and my early childhood hula dancing classes.  Carving messages of HELP ME in the air.  In the end, I convinced him that although I was as lost and helpless as an infant, I actually did know where I wanted to end up.  He shook his head mournfully at my folly, but eventually directed me, via my interpreter, using many repetitions.  We shook sweaty hands and parted forever.

I cast my last glance into the tiny internet cafe, at which it only now occurs to me I probably could have map-quested or googled instructions to our apartment, or had a taxi called.  I saw the Italian still shaking his head as he turned back to his computer screen, while the Persian owner hid warily behind his grated counter, eager to see the back of me.  The young Spaniard walked me to the corner where by now Lisa had gone to accost passers-by in English as a back-up plan to my internet cafe effort.  From the looks on their faces, they seemed to suspect she was a beggar.  No one consented to speak to her.  Our Spanish friend pointed out to us the first few turns in our journey home, repeated the rest of our turns, and wished us godspeed.  We shook his hand in deep gratitude.  I would have cried with relief but I felt I couldn’t afford the loss of more vital salts and fluids.  And to be perfectly honest, I was not yet convinced in my heart that we would ever make it home alive.  But we did.

So once again I have been granted an experience that is a mere drop in the bucket of what it must feel like to be a refugee.  A miniscule drop. I have the incredible luxury of being able to eventually laugh at my misadventures, because we know that the worst vacation experiences make the best vacation stories.  There would be nothing funny about today if I had to live it over and over for years, knowing I had to stay here to send money to my family, or that my war-torn land would never embrace me again.

I have a homecoming on the horizon. There is no homecoming for the vast majority of refugees, as the home they left behind has also left them behind.  With that in my heart, while I will always have a giggle rise in my throat at the image of Lisa disappearing around the corner in that bus, I connect with immigrants and refugees across the globe in that recollection. Her sweet face seemed to be the beloved home country disappearing out of my sight, and the relentless bus driver the global economy carrying her out of my reach.